The town of Bukavu nowadays

The town of Bukavu, the capital of the South Kivu was built in the 1910’s during the period of Belgian colonization known as the Belgian Congo. It is located on the shore of the Lake Kivu and neighbors the Kamembe town of the West Province of Rwanda, only separated by the river Ruzizi. The Belgians built this beautiful town to accommodate approximately 4,000 people and the houses made of burnt bricks, soil and sand added the beauty to this town. The population of this town reached 10,000 people in the 1960s. Tourists came from all over the world to enjoy the beauty, rich green of this town, and moreover, the gorillas in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park.

Some big changes occurred simultaneously early in the 1990’s when the war started in the Great Lakes region. In 1994 the hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees came into the DRC and settled around the town and the park. In 1996 the devastating war that was to chase out the dictatorial power started in the DRC. This war had two different facts, (1) the impact on the natural resources which was to extract coltan, cassiterite, gold, wildlife, etc. by international dealers who used dealers from the neighbor countries, (2) the concentration of the population in the small town of Bukavu that was caused by the influx of displaced people who escaped from the rural areas due to the high level of insecurity. Many young girls, old women were raped by mostly unidentified armed people: the pronounced pillage and massacres weighed on people.

IMG_6311-smallLocal dealers earned money from the mineral trade and built houses without choosing areas in the hilly town of Bukavu. As a result, the monthly house rent exceeds $3,000 for the first class houses and $300 for the last hand houses. Nowadays, over 1 million of people are concentrated in the little town that was built for just 4,000 people.

In addition, the earthquake that occurred on February 2008, shook soils and houses. It poses a danger for the future. Many house fall down even twice a month when a heavy rain falls.

Malnutrition around the Eastern Lowland Gorilla habitat and a way of facing it by the POPOF

The Kahuzi Biega National Park (KBNP) is surrounded by the communities of six different tribes as follows: the Rega, the Twa, the Shi, the Tembo, the Nyanga and the Kano. To penetrate the protected area is very illegal by the park law enforcement. Still a handful of them penetrate the park for bush meat, trapping, farming, mining and etc. They are all arrested and forced to pay fines despite their poverty level.

Guinea pigs receiving

Guinea pigs receiving

In the high land sector of the KBNP, The Shi and the Tembo tribes grow maize, sorghums,beans, soybeans,peanuts, pumkins, sweet potatoes, oil palm, rice, cassava and etc. They breed cows, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, guinea pigs etc. The malnutrition was at a lower level before the beginning of the war, and also before the massive flux of the Rwandan Refugees into DRC in 1994.
The communities surrounding the park were losing crops year by year since 1994 as ravaged by either refugees, different armed factions or government troops. The level of poverty augmented in these areas than before. Most of these people became displaced and live nowadays in small towns just to escape the troubles. In 2005 the Pole Pole Foundation “POPOF” began to distribute some guinea pigs to each family. Around 2000 families received a couple of guinea pigs (male and female) to breed. The malnutrition was very evident in the area, mostly in the children aged between 2-8.

Give food and let me grow. Who knows my futureThe communities which received the guinea pigs reproduced them and were able to sell some of them so as to buy clothes and to school their children, and also consume them themselves to feed their malnourished children. Despite being done at a small scale, it has been one of the solutions to alleviate some problems among villages around the KBNP. The POPOF provides boiled foods to the malnourished children. The food is made of maize, soybeans and sorghums flowers. A child would eat a cup of boiled food twice per day and consumes one piece of a guinea pig once a week. Weighing them regularly, the weight is adding often on a positive progress. This project is called “Give me food and let me grow, Who knows my future?”. Any one who would like to get involved in this junior project is VERY WELCOME.

A teenage boy bitten by a gorilla around the KBNP

On 15th January 2010 in Cibingu village in Kabare that is located in a highland at just around 3-4 km from the park, a gorilla crossed the park boundary and moved into the village. While wandering, the gorilla encountered a teenage boy walking alone in the field. Having seen this “unusual appearance of a black hairy costume”, the boy screamed and ran away crying. Suddenly the gorilla jumped on him and bit the back flesh of his thigh. The gorilla also moved back quickly into the forest to “hide”.

By hearing the cries of the bitten teenage boy, the inhabitants appeared there running quick toward him for a rescue. It was already late as the gorilla had already gone back to hide in its habitat. Some of the people in the village confirmed that he saw the gorilla by his own eyes before it went to encounter and bit the teenage boy. He emphasized and said “it was a gorilla and not another monkey”. The boy was immediately transported to the Hospital of Mukongola for treatments.

Sighnboard of the Park

Sighnboard of the Kahuzi-Biega N.P. at Tchivanga (photo by Keiko Mori)

The Chief Warden of the KBNP, Radar Nishuli paid a visit to the boy last week to see how the boy was being treated. The guardian of the boy and other villagers of Cibingu proposed Radar that he must support the fees of the hospital for this boy and keep taking care of his “wild animals”.. Thus, the treatment for the boy will be continued at the hospital until his complete recovery and discharge. The park management will pay all fees for the boy as requested.

With my 20 years of tracking the gorillas in the wild, however, I kept wondering whether the local community of Cibingu village confused a baboon with a gorilla? The Eastern lowland gorillas (ELG) located in the highland sector of the KBNP have been monitored for over 4 decades. In their main habit none of them has ever been observed feeding on crops grown in the surrounding of the park such as banana, sorghum, maize, beans, soybeans, pumpkin, guava, orange, lemon, cassava, peanuts, etc.

ELG rarely leave their habitat to wander out of it. There may be two reasons for the habituated gorilla families to move out of their natural habitat: (1) When the interaction between two different groups or between a father and his son occurs, the loser of the fight would get away with or without members of their group and would some time cross the park boundary to shelter in the human fields. (2) In case of a given gorilla, male or female, becomes very old, it would leave out of its group for a long period of loneliness. Such gorilla can roam anywhere including outside the park, also in the fields and woods belonging to human beings in close proximity. None of such gorillas were ever observed daring to feed on the ripe or green crops that are cited above. Of course they do cross the farms but not to feed there.

Now I can’t help thinking about this particular gorilla, probably not habituated one, which was wandering and bit the teenage boy. What is the reason for it to cross the park boundary and move straight to the villagers’ farms? The villagers said that it did not try to feed on the crops but rather moved through. Also once moving in to the farms of crops, ELG do not nest there and rather they would just go across from one side to the other side. In case there is a wild banana tree (Ensete ventricosum) in the farm, gorillas out of the park would sit down and enjoy that tree for food. Also other forest plants like nettle (Urera hypselendron), Malabar spinach (Bassella alba) and Maesa lanceolata, found in the farms would be immediately fed by these gorillas. Did this “gorilla” that appeared in the village farms fought another gorilla or another group then lost the fight and now was hiding in the farms? Is it a solitary gorilla? What gorilla group in the park did it came from?

Among the enumerated animals which feed on the crops were the elephants which was causing a high depredation before the war of 1996. Unfortunately they were slaughtered by poachers during the turmoil of war and its population was reduced by 90%. Recently, according to a report by the POPOF published in 1999, those wildlife that consume more field crops, while troubling the park managers and farmers, were baboons, guenons (cercopithecus), colubus, antelopes and birds: But chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) that are more arboreal and spend more time in the primary forest are rarely found crossing in the farms. Gorillas are a friendly species that never hunts a human being for meat because it is herbivorous and frugivorous. It is always the human being who harm it in its natural habitat.

We can say that the KBNP is aged 40 years old since it became totally protected. It is the first national area to open the gorilla tourism in early 1970’s. These gorilla groups are daily tracked by people who may not be educated but very well experienced people. I registered 6 cases of accident where people were bitten by male gorillas of the daily tracked groups. They are five workers (trackers) and one famous cameraman Alan Root who came here to film a part of the film “Gorillas in the mist” in 1987. Root was bitten the right thigh and went to hospital for 3 months. Other trackers were always the ones who were in position of running away mostly when a silverback male of a group was charging. They all were bitten either on the calf or the shin and sent to local hospitals for treatment, too. None of the bitten people ever died after the accident but all survived. (It is however advised to always keep looking towards the face of the visiting gorilla to express your familiarity rather than turning your back towards it.)

No rabies is found in the gorillas. Otherwise the bitten people would have perished out of it. It is the same as the recent case of the teenage boy. He survived and no rabies was detected in his blood.

We thank the efforts provided by the park authorities for the mobilization they did together with the national and international NGOs for making the park resources to be respected and accepted by the local communities. Things prove that it is the beginning of the positive improvement. However more assistance is required from everyone in the world to contribute to the environmental education program conducted by POPOF, ICCN and other actors which will manage the natural resources and the surrounding communities in harmony.

For any information about the gorillas biting human beings and not feeding on crops, please contact me at the POPOF.

First encounter with the gorillas in their natural habitat

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In the early 1980s I was designated by the Kahuzi-Biega National Park authorities to approach the gorillas for the tourism. My unforgettable date is the 1st of October 1983 at the age of twenty when a park guide Serundori held my hand for the first time to track the gorillas. We led an English- Australian group of tourists from the Guerba Expeditions, a tour operator.

It took us 2 hours to find the group of Maheshe, a son of Casimir who was the first silverback gorilla whom my uncle Adrien Deschryver habituated for the very first time in the wild.

As any inexperienced young man, my heart beat a lot when I saw the beautiful bamboo forest but I had a lot of ambition to be doing as I watched my uncle did to Casimir when I was eight years old. Serundori and some trackers belonging to Batwa tribe led our group to where the Maheshe group was taking a day rest. I heard some noise “pok pok” in the distance before we could find them.

We saw some babies and juveniles climbing on trees watching us and beating chest while playing among themselves. Suddenly I saw the big King Kong who was Maheshe, the silverback male of the group, sitting in the middle of some females. Some females groomed their offspring and one groomed the leader male. I was a bit frightened to see his massive body. I said to Serundori “I don’t think I need to be a gorilla guide.” and I was moving backward. He laughed and stopped me behind and said “We all started like you and were scared like you are now but later on we got accustomed to the familiar creatures.

The Guerba Expeditions group exceeded 24 people and, adding ourselves, the group reached about 35 people in front of the gorillas. It was when the park gorilla regulations were not strict and didn’t limit the number of tourists to the gorillas for a day. They filmed them and used flashlight, too. I have been told by Serundori to translate into English for the tourists “Please. If the gorilla charges, do not run. Rather stand still and take a photo”. When Maheshe made a noise “GRUUUUUUM” I warned the tourists to stand still but actually I was the first to be running away and shaking my heart.

After spent an hour with the gorillas, the tourists were happy. On our way back from the gorillas to the road where our vehicles were parked, the man at the top of the trackers’ queue met a bush antelope caught on a snare and dead. They arranged themselves to tell me secretly about it and also told me that we must hide this from the tourists. They told me to say “Sorry, dear visitors, here are ants. Let’s avoid them. Turn around and go quickly because ants can bite you.” Immediately, we made another queue and went aside. I saw trackers stay behind to grab the dead antelope and carried it at the end of our queue.

By the road, the couple of Gordon and Joy Blackie, the leader of the Guerba’s Bedford truck, enjoyed very much how we pleased their group, and they gave us tips as reward. I wondered why the trackers could not show the dead antelope to the visitors while it is common that poachers are everywhere in a protected area. I was thinking the whole night that somehow I could see the big King Kong and how this has definitely became my job.

On the second day with the same team, we walked for only 20 minutes and met the Maheshe group. It was at 9:00 AM. The members of the gorilla group were scattered in its each path just for breaking the bamboo shoots. My heart did not beat as it did on the first day. I started feeling as normal as other trackers do in the team. We were able to see only four members: the silverback male, two adult females and two babies.

We spent an hour and returned but visitors enjoyed very much. As no antelope was caught on the snare that day, there was no warning to avoid ants by our trackers leading ahead of the group. Each of us was paid tips as the tourists were too happy.

I went down to my little native town Miti at 7 km from the Park and bought a dozen of candles, a kerosene lamp and a whole bottle of kerosene. I decided to writing daily about anything I could observe on the fauna and flora during my trips in the forest. Slowly, slowly, it was the beginning of my “Long Term Records”(LTR) data collections on the gorillas.